Confessions of an Ex–Never Trumper

If you want one set of policies, you can’t be choosy about character.

The Atlantic

She had to sleep on it. The letter was in her inbox; friends and colleagues, throughout the Republican national-security circles where Rebeccah Heinrichs had made her career, were signing on. It called then-candidate Donald Trump “fundamentally dishonest” and claimed that if elected president, he would use his power “in ways that make America less safe.” She wasn’t crazy about the tone in some spots, but she also didn’t think he was a credible candidate. Only a few other Republicans were left in the primary back then in March 2016—and she thought a letter like this, with its roll call of GOP luminaries, could help nudge voters to pick someone more responsible.

“I made the decision based on the information I had,” she told me recently. She doesn’t regret signing the letter, but now thinks that many of the worries she and her colleagues were expressing then—in warning about Trump’s isolationism, the potential economic effects of his trade policies, and his embrace of the “expansive use of torture,” among other things—were unfounded. And she is thrilled about that.

Heinrichs is an exception in the old GOP national-security world—which for the most part has stuck to its Never Trump positions—but she’s the norm in the party as a whole, which gives Trump a 94 percent approval rating. The 150-odd names on letters such as the one she signed represent the last major bastion of Republican resistance to Trump; prominent members continue to slam the president for his insulting tweets and his volatile temperament, even questioning his very ability to behave like an adult. But outside of this club—whether for reasons of ambition, genuine approval, or a combination of both—elected officials and operatives have largely fallen in line behind the president. And Heinrichs, unlike many of her peers, decided she could accept the character flaws because the foreign-policy results looked good.

“His personal flaws are so transparent that they can distract truly well-meaning people or turn people off altogether,” she told me. But fundamentally, she feels Trump is fighting for a powerful America. “I have long argued for American primacy and President Trump is, even if sometimes clumsily, defending it and fighting for it. I'm not going to yell at the clouds over his tweets or obsess over this or that expression of bad manners.”

Trump has done plenty of things the old Republican foreign-policy establishment would cheer for, if someone else were doing them. He has labeled China as a threat, condemning its trade practices and calling for investments to counter the country’s military rise. He ditched a nuclear deal with Iran that many Republicans hated, and has financially devastated the regime instead. His administration has added more troops in Eastern Europe to confront Russia, and ended an arms-control treaty that Moscow was violating—even while Trump himself has confused matters by praising Vladimir Putin’s leadership and questioning whether Russia has really interfered in U.S. elections. Whatever Trump’s own doubts, though, at the insistence of Congress, he has imposed sanctions against Russia for 2016 election interference. Sure, he has said mean things about NATO, but Republicans and Democrats alike have long wanted other members to pay more for their own defense, and now they are.

On the flip side, the Trump presidency hasn’t manifested in the precise kind of nightmare the Never Trump letter writers envisioned in 2016. In the first of two alarmed open missives—one that appeared in March 2016 in War on the Rocks and another in The New York Times that August—GOP foreign-policy power brokers warned about specific consequences of a Trump presidency: His wish for trade wars was “a recipe for economic disaster”; his “hateful, anti-Muslim rhetoric” would alienate allies in the Muslim world; he could bring back torture. In 2020, the economic effects of the trade war have been mild, cushioned by a multibillion-dollar bailout to farmers; Muslim allies in the Gulf in particular have overlooked his rhetoric and embraced Trump over his harshness toward their archenemy Iran; the use of torture in war remains illegal, even though Trump has granted clemency to three soldiers accused of war crimes.

None of this consoles the many signatories who still find Trump unacceptable. Policies can change, but character does not. If your main concern in 2016 was that Trump was “fundamentally dishonest” and “wildly inconsistent,” or that he “lacks the temperament to be President,” as the letters claimed, Trump likely hasn’t convinced you otherwise. And even if the worst predictions haven’t come to pass, you still won’t feel reassured while someone you fundamentally distrust is making life-and-death decisions on behalf of the country every day; there’s no World War III now, but in the words of the prominent Never Trumper and Atlantic contributor Eliot Cohen, “that’s a pretty low bar.” Cohen, a former senior Bush-administration official who helped coordinate the War on the Rocks letter, described the specific kind of unease he felt in Politico in late 2017. “This is about putting lives on the line. These are enormously consequential kinds of decisions that a president makes. And character really trumps, so to speak, everything else.”

Or maybe power does. Far from being inhibited by the foreign-policy establishment that shunned him, Trump has destroyed it. The list of names on the letters now reads like a memorial wall for the party’s old power brokers. Trump has barred them almost entirely from jobs in his administration, and built a new pro-Trump establishment on the wreckage of the old GOP elite.

Heinrichs is the rare young intellectual to have lived in both worlds. By 2016, she had worked on missile-defense issues on the Hill and held research posts at a number of conservative think tanks, headlining panels on issues such as “the future of missile defense” and co-authoring a paper on “deterrence and nuclear targeting in the 21st century.” Now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, she has been described as “one of the leaders of the next generation of experts on nuclear strategy and arms control” and is a regular TV commentator on U.S. foreign policy. She, along with a few other members of the GOP’s most resistant segment—which includes people who have spent their careers devoted to alliances, worrying about presidential character, and banging on about norms and values—have now come around to Trump’s foreign policy.

Even in primary season, Heinrichs saw hints of Trump’s appeal. People she knew back home in small-town Ohio found the candidates she was informally advising, including Marco Rubio and Scott Walker, too wooden. “I have some lifelong Democrat friends and family members who, for the first time in their life, supported the Republican candidate and voted for Donald Trump,” she said. “He’s like, ‘I’m tired of Americans dying in Afghanistan.’ And they’re like, ‘Yeah, so are we.’”

Trump, of course, made it through the primaries despite the Republican opposition, and Heinrichs knew she couldn’t support Clinton, whom she saw as dangerously accommodating to foes such as China and Iran. She had also noticed patterns in what Trump was saying.  Just because he wanted to avoid overseas “nation-building” didn’t make him an isolationist—he also wanted better trade deals, so clearly wanted to be engaged in the world. So, she said on a Federalist podcast then, “I was open to this idea of a different kind of commander in chief.”

There was something else, she told The Federalist. “I didn’t like the direction that the Never Trump national-security establishment was going.” The suggestion that Trump would start a nuclear war, or a war with Muslims all over the world was “incredibly irresponsible coming from people who I think, and know, know better.”

This, after all, was the president that the election had delivered, and clearly many of the notions the old GOP foreign-policy establishment considered sacred were very much open to question. “Ordinary Americans … look at the establishment and say, ‘I don’t think you guys necessarily know what you’re doing,’” she told me. Many in the establishment were the same people who had advocated or helped mismanage wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And anyway, was Trump being ignorant or spooking allies when he asked what the point of NATO was and why the U.S. had troops in South Korea? Or was he asking questions that average Americans wanted to know the answers to?

He could be doing both, but Heinrichs found it offensive that elites she knew considered it unreasonable for Trump—and by extension the millions of people who voted for him—to wonder where American resources were going and why. To her, this, and the broader discomfort with Trump’s populist appeal, reflected establishment contempt for public opinion. “I think it's wrong for the professional national-security class to write off common Americans as irrelevant or even nuisances,” Heinrichs said.

The matter of Trump himself, however, persists—and whatever good his administration may be doing in his supporters’ eyes, his own words frequently call into doubt where the United States really stands. His Russia comments were one example, and his sudden order to remove troops from northeastern Syria last fall left a vacuum for Russia to fill. He has praised leaders his government formally considers enemies, including North Korea’s Kim Jong Un (“We fell in love,” Trump once said of the dictator), and even the Taliban’s chief (“The relationship is very good that I have with the mullah”). These gestures would be unthinkable for any president from the GOP “establishment”—which excoriated the Obama administration for its Taliban talks and for dealing with Iran’s “mullahs.”

Nevertheless, Trump’s lack of concern for foreign-policy orthodoxy has also unshackled him in ways Heinrichs has cheered, although she admitted to “white-knuckling” over some of the risks Trump embraced. For instance, both George W. Bush and Barack Obama had opportunities to kill the Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, but they decided against it. Yes, Soleimani was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans in Iraq, but Iran and the U.S. were not formally at war, and such a hit could start one. A more typical administration would focus on those risks and hold lots of interagency meetings. “And it’s like, ok, but I would like to kill Soleimani,” said Heinrichs. “So is it just talking points and white papers that we’re trying to do? It’s almost like we were afraid of our own shadow in these policy areas where Donald Trump doesn’t care.”

If orthodoxy isn’t always right, though, neither is flouting it. She was uneasy about Trump’s performance at his meeting with Putin in Helsinki, where Trump undermined his intelligence agencies’ findings on election interference. “Across the board, I think for any American president, when you leave your own borders, you take your own side,” she said. She also admired appointees such as James Mattis, who resigned on principle, and a stream of other ex-officials who condemned Trump on their way out the door. While she chalks up the departures to Trump’s comfort with high turnover, she’s also not happy with some of his decisions to fire people.

The rift in the old “Never Trump” community has put former allies on opposing sides and destroyed friendships. Heinrichs is baffled by colleagues determined to bash a president who is doing many of the things they used to want, though she says she is cordial with them. Cohen has been harsher, comparing Trump’s sympathizers to those who served the Vichy regime in Nazi-occupied France. The former diplomat Robert Blackwill signed both letters, later reservedly praised Trump’s foreign policies, and still said he would support any of the Democratic candidates over Trump in 2020. Once again, the policies didn’t matter so much as the man himself. “One can correct mistakes in foreign policy, or at least often one can,” Blackwill said. But Trump is “weakening our democratic institutions, and he’s dividing the country. So in my judgment, that has much longer implications than any particular foreign policy that he pursues.”

But even if he loses in 2020, Trump is not going away. ”There are too many people inside D.C. who think Donald Trump is a fluke and that the only reason he won was because his opponent was so weak,” Heinrichs said. And their additional warnings about Trump’s alleged damage to American standing in the world, his treatment of the federal bureaucracy, and his violations of long-standing norms, have clearly failed to convince the 40-odd percent of the country that approves of him.

It’s still hard to say whether, in the event of a Trump reelection, more signatories will tire of being locked out of the new center of GOP power, and let go of their character concerns.

“If I had my way, I would love to have a president who can lift the country and unify it, and has great personal virtue, and [can] carry out all of these policies that I think are necessary to defend and strengthen our security,” Heinrichs said. But voting for the policies means voting for the character. “You don’t get pieces of a candidate; you get the whole candidate,” she said.

Leah Feiger contributed reporting.